Anti-Intellectualism and American Revivalism

The historic Christian church has typically been a thinking church.  From Paul to Augustine to Bernard to Aquinas to Calvin to Owen (including many others), Christianity has had a robustly intellectual side to it.  Many Christians have taken seriously Jesus’ command to love God with our minds.

In the American church, however, there has been a strong strain of anti-intellectualism.  Even today, people still joke that seminary is like a cemetery where faith goes to die.  I’ve heard many Christians speak critically of higher theological learning.  Some Christian circles have a built-in disdain for academic theological and biblical studies.  With a critical tone they say, “You can’t learn such and such from any professor in seminary!”

J. P. Moreland noted that (generally speaking) Christianity in America started out with decent emphasis on theological/biblical education, but “in the middle 1800s… things began to change dramatically, though the seeds for the change had already been planted in the popularized, rhetorically powerful, and emotionally directed preaching of George Whitefield in the First Great Awakening in the United States from the 1730s to the 1750s.”

“During the middle 1800s, three awakenings broke out in the United States: the Second Great Awakening (1800-1820), the revivals of Charles Finney (1824-1837), and the Layman’s Prayer Revival (1856-1858).  Much good came from these movements, but their overall effect was to emphasize immediate personal conversion to Christ instead of a studied period of reflection and conviction; emotional, simple, popular preaching instead of intellectually careful and doctrinally precise sermons; and personal feelings and relationships to Christ instead of a deep grasp of the nature of Christian teaching and ideas.  Sadly, as historian George Marsden notes, ‘anti-intellectualism was a feature of American revivalism.’”

“Obviously, there is nothing wrong with the emphasis of those movements on personal conversion.  What was a problem, however, was the intellectually shallow, theologically illiterate form of Christianity that became part of the populist Christian religion that emerged.  One tragic result of this was what happened in the so-called Burned Over District in the state of New York.  Thousands of people were ‘converted’ to Christ by revivalist preaching, but they had no real intellectual grasp of Christian teaching.  As a result, two of the three major American cuts began in the Burned Over District among the unstable, untaught ‘converts’: Mormonism (1830) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (1884).”

Those are some important observations to note.  It is no coincidence that today there are many cults/sects in the United States that came out of populist American Christianity.  One blessing of rigorous theological and biblical study is it helps combat error.  One Puritan put it something like this:

“Ignorance is not the mother of devotion but of heresy.”

The above quotes can be found on pages 22-23 of J. P. Moreland, Love God With All Your Mind.

shane lems

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4 comments on “Anti-Intellectualism and American Revivalism

  1. Machen deals with this same issue (not revivalism, but anti-intellectualism) in What Is Faith?

  2. matt says:

    And often the “ignorance” is due to laziness. Christians don’t want to do the hard work. They really don’t know what they’re missing. Studying the Scriptures and having a real intellectual grasp of Christian doctrine is a blessing like none other.

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